On Learning a New Language

Going to academic conferences raises questions for me.

More extended and unstructured trips raise many more–and other kinds of questions about speaking and silence.

Most of these queries go unanswered.

From “Stranger in a Strange Land: Grokking in the Americas,” September 11, 2006:

I’m traveling in Central America with my daughter Marian and my husband Jeff. Marian has lived in Mexico, and is fluent in Spanish. Jeff and I have no experience either living or speaking in this part of the world.

When we touched down in Guatemala City yesterday afternoon, the whole plane load of people burst into applause.

Marian: “This expresses our gratitude to the pilot.”

Anne: “Perhaps this suggests an uncertainty that we would be landing safely?”

Jeff: “Are we one or two hours behind time?”

Marian: “Parentals: There is one thing you need to know while living in a new country. You are not going to understand everything. Why people clap. What time it is.”

Anne: “Inquiring minds want to know.”

Marian: “Your mind wants to know. Your mind needs to change.”

At this point, all the old women around us pull their suitcases down from the overhead bins, place them on their heads, and walk free-handed off the plane. Somewhat bewildered (how can they do this, without holding on?), we follow.1

As it turns out, Fall 2006 is a rough time for me; I don’t manage very well. I loathe the loss of my voice in Spanish–and with it my ability to communicate with others. I feel as though I’ve surrendered any recognizable sense of self: I am no longer quick, sharp, eager to follow up any statement with a complicating question. Learning a new language is excruciating. Very slowly, I get the hang of just saying what I know (always so limited, so inadequate for what I want to be saying); what’s far harder is engaging in on-the-spot dialogue, the give-and-take of wanting to say, and not having the words to speak. I’m very, very hungry to be able to talk—really talk—to the people I’m meeting.

But at our second language school, in Xela, Guatemala, I get off to a rough start with a new teacher, start crying because I can’t find the words I need.

Not to be able to speak, for me, feels like death.

Yup. Pretty melodramatic.

I’m an extrovert. I love to talk with others, feel most alive when engaged in doing so. I enjoy college teaching so much because my days are structured around such encounters. My pleasure is well described by my friend Alice Lesnick (in dialogue–of course!–with one of her students, who asks her what “fuels her creativity”):

the primary thing is conversation….I am very blessed to…work with many conversation partners, and I think of my work here as largely centered in…an exchange of language and ideas…it really floats my boat. Especially when the outcome is uncertain.2

The uncertainty is very important here. I’m far less interested in rants, sermons, even lectures that know where they are going. Like Alice, what I most enjoy is the back-and-forthing of an exchange that is exploratory, trying, collaboratively, to get somewhere, to figure something out: a text, a political or social question, an existential dilemma.

What I most like to do, what makes me feel most alive, most centered, most sure that my life makes some sense/is worth going through with, is being engaged with others, learning about how they understand the world, and trying out my perceptions on them in turn.

Part of this is just the joy of company-keeping. Part of it is feeling a sense of my own aliveness, called out by another. And a large part of it is the fun of finding out something new together.

So the most difficult periods of my life are those when I am not able to engage in this sort of collaborative dialogue.

I’m out of my element, away from what I do well, unable to flourish–even to function–in cultures different from my own, countries where “who I am,” all I have come to be, seem to shift in meaning. I don’t know my place, am not sure what my nationality, race, class signal. Operating as privileges in the U.S, here they dis-privilege me in some ways. I feel shut out, by a range of factors, from most of what is happening in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Chile. I have just recently arrived in these parts of the world, and lack any facility in Spanish. Two of the countries in which I am sojourning have long histories of secrecy, decades of human rights abuses that I am only beginning to understand. The ghosts of Rios Montt and Augusto Pinochet cast long shadows; I often feel shrouded in darkness.


Unable to respond, acknowledging the limits of my capacity to intervene, provokes me to re-think some rather profound presumptions, about both who I am and how much agency I have to alter the world in which I live. I come to realize that, in many ways, my writing exercises and speaking lessons in the Americas, which feel so disabling to my sense of self, are concrete, personal demonstrations of the larger process of humans’ telling one another stories of our experiences: not abandoning the search to connect, but acknowledging that we will never-never-never quite be able to do so.

I participate for several years in a Working Group on Language at Bryn Mawr, and one of the key ideas I learn there is the notion that humans use language, not to convey information, but to solicit feedback from others; not to tell them what we know, but to learn what we don’t. This notion evolves from the analysis of linguists that what we say is never heard transparently, but rather always as an incomplete translation of what we mean. The stages of transmission are many: from what we feel, to what we think, to what we say; from what we say, to what we are heard to be saying; from what is heard, to what is thought, to what is felt by the one with whom we are speaking.3

Which is to say that the great pleasure I take in speaking is fueled in large part by my recognition of the inevitable limits of that activity, a realization that I never know, much less communicate, exactly what I mean. It is because I can never quite “connect” that I have to keep on trying to. And it is also because I can never quite “connect” that I have slowly come to appreciate silence, as marking that space and time where what cannot be said (in the moment, or ever) resides.It is because I can never quite “connect” that I have to keep on trying to. And it is also because I can never quite “connect” that I have slowly come to appreciate silence, as marking that space and time where what cannot be said (in the moment, or ever) resides.

Silence refuses to valorize the quick uptake of language, allowing for the passage of time, out of which interpretation may emerge.

In part–and only in part perversely–because of my long resistance to being silenced, I become a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and slowly, but steadily, learn to take some solace in the practice of chosen, silent worship. All that is spoken in worship arises from and returns to silence, in which the words–themselves often faltering–can “grow,” open up, have resonance. In Central Philadelphia Meeting this morning, for instance, someone speaks of “wood becoming fire,” as an image of our “becoming what we attend to.” This leads me to reflect on my own engagements: who-and-what I am drawn to, how that shapes who I am becoming, the work that I do. In such pauses between messages, I find connections between what is said, my own concerns, and larger ones. I learn to love that space of expansion.

I publish essays about the application of such practices to both the interpretation of texts and the dynamics of the classroom.4 When I first design a new course on “The Rhetorics of Silence,” in Fall 2012, I imagine offering my students a whole panoply of experience, of silence as a source of transformation, of active resistance that challenges how social meaning is made. I want us to engage in solitary and communal practices of silence; shared, dialogic, critical thinking about such experiences; reading and interpreting written, visual and material texts about silence; finding effective, not only verbal, ways of expressing and acting in response to our emergent understandings–including the possibility of clearing some space not to articulate them—and the acknowledgement that there is much we don’t, and won’t ever, understand.

I want to explore silence, with my students, as an alternative space to observe, feel, think, and dream. I want to seek concrete applications in a variety of cultural expressions, drawing theoretical positions, and derivative practices, from cultural studies, feminist inquiry, linguistics, philosophy and religious thought. I think we might find educational theory and reflective practice of particular value, and I hope that the class can keep close to the bone in considering what is happening for us all, as teachers and learners of silence.

The deliberate practice of silence may accomplish more than increasing the range of things that might be said.

It may remind us that everything that is important cannot be said.

Bryn Mawr has taught me to speak in ellipses….Bryn Mawr…must have given me…the sense that…for everything you say…something…else is…left out

–Elizabeth Catanese, “Some Thoughts on Teaching

…silence…is an illusion. If we hear nothing…it only means we aren’t listening hard enough….The total absence of sound is never a possibility….silence is a…way of thinking….a way of imagining…a moment outside time…the possibility of pausing…proof that the decision to listen or not is ours. Proof that we are called to pay attention

John Edgar Wideman, “In Praise of Silence

  1. Anne Dalke, “September 11, 2006,” Stranger in a Strange Land: Grokking in the Americas (September 12, 2006), accessed February 18, 2016, https://serendip.brynmawr.edu/oneworld/blog/september-11-2006
  2. Christina Stella, “the mawr you know: alice lesnick!” accessed February 18, 2016.
  3. Language: A Conversation. Center for Science in Society, Bryn Mawr College. November 26, 2001-March 24, 2004, accessed February 18, 2016.
  4. Anne Dalke, “‘On Behalf of the Standard of Silence’: The American Female Modernists and the Powers of Restraint,” Soundings: An Interdiscipinary Journal 78, 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1995): 501-519; Anne Dalke, “Silence is so Windowful: Class as Antechamber,” in Teaching to Learn/Learning to Teach: Meditations on the Classroom. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. 95-114.